Getting Beyond Corn: It’s Time to Talk About Cities
Corn seems to be the issue of choice for the presidential candidates. Speeches in Iowa are peppered with a healthy dose of talk about corn-based ethanol and farm subsidies, and candidates give stump speeches surrounded by fields of corn or at county fairs with corn dogs, corn fritters, and corn on the cob.
Go to the websites of both the Democratic candidates, and you find that corn gets a special place. Barack Obama lists "Rural" in the issues section of his website, and includes a 14-page "Rural Plan Fact Sheet." Hillary Clinton has a "Creating Opportunity in Rural America" section, several press releases, and a PDF called "Hillary's Vision for Rural America," which begins with a photo of a beaming Clinton surrounded by flannel shirt clad members of the Farmers Union. Undoubtedly, the candidates care about corn and the communities and people (and, uh, lobbyists) that produce it. But what about the rest of us? Might all this attention on corn and country be taking the focus away from the rest of America?
Contrary to what the presidential candidates might have you believe, most of us live in urban areas. Over 80% of the U.S. population lives in cities or their metropolitan areas. Cities -- not corn -- largely drive the U.S. economy. According to the Brookings Institute, the top 100 metro areas in the U.S. comprise 12% of our land mass yet account for 75% of our G.D.P. These 100 cities hold 76% of our knowledge economy jobs and cities as a whole drive 90% of our economy.
These cities have their own unique sets of challenges. Decades-old infrastructure is crumbling, and cities are overflowing with traffic congestion and environmental problems. Homeowners fight the subprime crisis and rising housing costs and public schools struggle with budget cuts.
In the face of these unique issues facing cities and lack of urban policy talk coming from candidates, The Drum Major Institute recently collaborated with The Nation to ask for thoughts on urban issues from the people who know cities best: mayors. The result of the project was MayorTV, which, when taken as a whole, paints a picture of a country in need of a coherent urban policy.
The mayors lamented the lack of federal support for urban areas. As Boston mayor Tom Menino said, "Because Washington has no urban agenda, the cities in this country are doing poorly. Unemployment is up. Faith in the economy has gone down. Crime has gone up." Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, agreed. "Whether it's poverty, work and opportunity, bolstering the middle class, housing or infrastructure," he said, "it is absolutely criminal that the federal government has failed to address these issues."
Denver mayor John Hickenlooper described cities as America's laboratories: testing sites for the national policies of the future. "Down here where the rubber meets the road, we're fixing potholes, we're making cities safer, we're solving problems around health care ... we can figure out the solutions. We're America's laboratories." The federal government, he said, needs to support cities to carry out effective policy. "As we find cost-effective ways to address these issues, whether you're talking about homeless or economic development ... once we find those solutions, we need help making sure that we have the resources to role them out to the whole community and the whole country." Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said there is a "messages of exclusion" coming out of Washington, and that he feels diversity is what has made his city strong. "You can hardly go to a block in Minneapolis where there isn't a significant contribution from the gay and lesbian community," he said. "And you can go to streets that were totally moribund before large scale immigration happened that are totally revised because of it."
There's nothing wrong with the candidates' discussion of corn-filled rural issues. After all, corn manages to sneak its way into our lives in all kinds of ways, from our food to our fuel and in policies from immigration to trade. However, a truly national conversation this election season should give cities the attention that rural America has received for years.
Cross-posted from the Movement Vision Lab blog